Duke scholar leads a double life

Teaching history, writing romance

dmenconi@newsobserver.comSeptember 25, 2012 

  • Meet the author Katharine Dubois/Ashe will read from and sign her new book in the Triangle at a pair of upcoming events. Both start at 7 p.m. and admission is free: • Wednesday at Barnes and Noble, 760 S.E. Maynard Road, Cary (919-467-3866). • Oct. 10 at The Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham (919-286-2700).

For years, Katharine B. Dubois lived a double professional life: professor at Duke University under her real name, teaching medieval religious history and popular film/fiction; and author of romance novels under her pen name, Katharine Ashe.

By the time she published her first novel in 2010, keeping her secret identity under wraps became increasingly difficult – especially when she started earning accolades such as being named one of the new stars of historical romance by the American Library Association. So Dubois is finally coming clean with the release of her new book, “How a Lady Weds a Rogue” (Falcon Club series), which she’ll mark with two readings this week.

Even before “50 Shades of Grey” became a cultural phenomenon, romantic literature was a huge genre. The Business of Consumer Book Publishing estimates that romance fiction generated more than $1.3 billion of revenue in 2011 – nearly double that for religious/inspirational books ($715 million) and mysteries ($709 million).

Yet romantic literature still gets little respect. Dubois discusses why.

Q: Why did you keep your novel-writing a secret?

I thought it was important to keep it separate from my academic career. Writing novels was like a mini-vacation. I loved my research and the scholarship, but with novel-writing I could take the history I adored and set it free – invent things and write stories with happy endings, which was pretty addicting. That was important because graduate school is hard, getting your Ph.D. is challenging, and academia is very competitive. I knew that this would not necessarily be warmly embraced by my colleagues. Having separate lives got very tiring.

Q: How did your academic professional friends respond when you told them?

Fortunately, they were really receptive and incredibly supportive. They’ve become historical consultants for my books, so they’ve been a great resource. I didn’t completely come out of the closet until this summer, and it’s been so gradual that I was able to get used to every step. Duke has been fantastic about it, too. Duke has great scholars doing cutting-edge research in science, economics, engineering, art, and it’s a very open-minded place. Romance fiction is a massive industry, and it’s smart to take it seriously.

Q: For those not familiar with the romance genre, what books would you recommend?

It depends on what kind of writing and story-telling you like. It really is a 180-degree spectrum, every style imaginable is out there. One writer, Colleen Gleason, wrote a series that was basically Jane Austen crossed with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” There are conventions to romance novels; they have to be a love story with “an emotionally satisfying ending,” according to the Romance Writers of America. The couple is supposed to come to a place of commitment. It’s like mysteries that are solved or thrillers where the bad guys are defeated. Some romances don’t end happily, and readers tend to flip out over that. It’s a major expectation.

Q: So why isn’t romantic fiction taken more seriously?

People think of it in terms of their mom’s Harlequin romances, or the Fabio covers. It’s escapist, and most of them are quick reads. But there’s something in our culture that makes people believe a quick, easy read can’t be a great read, which is absolutely not the case. There’s beautiful writing in romance novels. I read everything and some of my favorite authors are romance writers. I think it’s curious that an industry largely run and consumed by women is often perceived so poorly. It’s genre fiction, but so are mysteries and science-fiction thrillers. But those get reviewed in The New York Times book reviews, and romantic authors generally don’t.

Q: Have you ever gotten reviewed in The New York Times?

Never.

Q: “How a Lady Weds a Rogue” is your sixth full-length novel since 2010. Do you ever sleep?

It seems like I don’t. I’ve started scheduling my deadlines further out because I had friends who thought I’d moved to another state. Romance readers are fabulous, it’s a world I love to be in because the readers are voracious. One reason I wrote so much so quickly is I wanted to have a backlist. So if someone discovered me, there would be several other books they could read right away. But the last couple of years were insane. I do love writing, but I need to slow down.

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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